(A companion post, Janus-style, to this one
As last year foreshadowed, the place most likely to produce a world-changing event in 2010 is Iran
. In December it became clear that the uprising is very much alive and not going away -- and is becoming both more radical in its aims and more willing to use violence. At the same time, stories circulate of government forces refusing orders to fire on crowds. The echoes of 1978-1979 are unmistakable; the fall of the Islamic Republic some time this year now strikes me as more likely than not.
What happens in Iran matters a great deal to the rest of the world. The theocracy is a major supporter of terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, and its fall would simplify other problems such as Iraq and the jihadist threats to Israel from Gaza and southern Lebanon. A successful Iranian revolution would also free the West from the terrible dilemma
posed by the Iranian nuclear program. The likely consequences of an American or Israeli military strike against the nuclear program would be horrendous; the likely consequences of the current Iranian regime actually acquiring nuclear weapons would be vastly worse
. But a secular and/or democratic Iranian government, even if it is not as friendly to the West as we would hope, might abandon the nuclear program or, more likely, become the kind of state whose possession of nuclear weapons we could live with (we can co-exist with unfriendly-but-rational nuclear-armed regimes, such as China, because their rationality allows the normal logic of deterrence to apply). In the best-case scenario, if events in Iran produce a fully secular state willing to align with the West, the whole situation in the Middle East would be changed for the better.
In the United States
, attention is already beginning to turn to this November's elections. One must of course be careful not to set the bar too high; the party holding the Presidency normally loses House seats in a mid-term election. A Democratic loss of around 15 seats would be a middle-of-the road outcome. A much bigger loss, as in 1994, would be a clear Republican win; no significant shift, or an increase in the Democrats' majority, would be a clear Democratic win.
Personally I'm not too worried. In the absence of some surprise game-changing event, the voters in November will judge the Democrats mainly by whether employment has improved signifi-cantly. The recession has now been over for months, and while jobs are always one of the last parts of the economy to recover, it will be surprising if there hasn't been major improvement by November. Still, the Democrats need to make jobs a top priority this year. There is much that the government can do -- one thing that comes to mind is a re-ordering of tax incentives to encourage job creation and penalize offshoring.
But what about those "game-changing events"? Here are a few that might shift the outcome:A major scandal engulfing a national figure
. If, say, Palin or Obama were caught in a sex scandal or something criminal, the effects could be serious. I see no indication of any such thing on the horizon, but surprises do happen.A serious third-party challenge or disaffection on the left
. I have mentioned before that the Republicans seem to be trying
to bring this about; it would tilt some close elections their way and shift the government to the right.A serious third-party challenge or disaffection on the right
. This actually strikes me as more likely, given the serious split on the right between radicals and moderates; it would tilt some close elections to the Democrats and shift the government to the left. NY-23 is the model; something similar may be brewing in the Florida
Senate race, as radical-right groups rally to support the strongly-conservative Rubio against the more moderate and more electable Crist. Replication of the same pattern across the country could produce a whole slew of unexpected Democratic wins.Gay marriage at the Supreme Court
. Marriage advocates are suing in federal court to overturn California's proposition 8, which abolished gay marriage in that state, based on a claim that it violates the federal Constitution. Because the suit is a federal one, whichever side loses may appeal to the Supreme Court. That could conceivably result in a ruling that laws banning gay marriage are unconstitutional, which would effectively legalize gay marriage nationwide. This would certainly galvanize the fundamentalist bigots for November -- but a victory of such magnitude would arguably be worth
losing some House seats for. A Supreme Court ruling upholding proposition 8 might also hurt the Democrats slightly, by fueling cynicism (among people who don't understand how politics works) about the disappointing pace of progress even with Democrats in power.A conservative return to sanity
. What if the moderate, rational conservatives rally and take the Republican party back from the Beck-Limbaugh-teabagger-fundamentalist radical element? This will
almost certainly happen, but not this year. Normally such a recovery happens only after a string of electoral defeats. Consider the left's years in the wilderness during the 80s, which ended only when moderates like Clinton pulled our side back toward the political center.A serious legislative blunder by the Democrats
. The most obvious possibility is pushing an illegal-alien amnesty, which would surely be massively punished by the voters in November, and rightly so. I think, however, that Obama is too politically savvy to let such a thing happen, especially at a time of high unemployment.Failure of health-care reform to pass
. It's not quite a done deal yet. In particular, note the special election in Massachusetts
next Tuesday for Kennedy's Senate seat. A defeat there would give the Republicans 41 seats, but that would also highlight the urgency of the filibuster issue (see below). But I think a loss here is unlikely.A natural disaster
. Katrina became part of the litany of Bush's failures; a weak or strong response to another such event could harm or help the current party in power.A climate-related disaster that sweeps away the credibility of global-warming denialism
. This would hurt the radical right and help the Democrats and the moderate right. In the long run such an event is inevitable, but the probability in any given year is low.A major Islamic terrorist attack
. Another 9/11 would give the Republicans an issue; a strong and effective response by the government could, however, turn that around. But I think such an event is extremely unlikely. No such attack has happened in the US since 9/11 itself. Whatever the reasons -- effective US counter-measures, a conclusion by jihadists that the consequences of such an attack would be undesirable, or something else -- those reasons will continue to be in effect.A major domestic right-wing terrorist attack
. There has been plenty of warning (see for example here
). The obvious possibilities are either an attack on a government facility similar to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, or an assassination of the President. The repercussions of such a horror would obviously be so explosive that its effect on the elections would seem secondary by comparison.
Aside from the elections, I see two other important issues in American politics this year.
First, the health-reform battle made it clear that the Senate's filibuster rules are seriously un-democratic in effect and need to be changed. This is, in fact, the most important issue
for the Democrats to focus on in the near-term future. Without the 60-vote super-majority requirement, Lieberman would have been irrelevant and the Senate bill would not have been stripped of its best and most broadly-popular provisions. If that requirement remains in place, similar obstructionism and watering-down will face every major piece of legislation from now on, especially if Democrats lose a Senate seat or two. A 58-40 majority is a clear popular mandate; it should not be stymied as we saw last year.
Second, assuming that the health bill does pass as expected, some elements of it will take effect this year; you can read about that here
too). How or whether this will affect the elections is hard to say, but it will bring real help to millions of people, surely a main purpose of holding political power in the first place.
Outside the realm of US politics entirely, here are a few other possible "game changers":A major Islamic terrorist attack in a foreign country
. The most likely targets would be India, Russia, or western Europe. How probable this is is very difficult to assess.An economic collapse and/or political upheaval in China
. Among major countries, China is uniquely riddled with risk factors for such an event and (due to its rigid political system) uniquely ill-equipped to handle it if it happens. Eventually it will happen -- but it's impossible to say when.A US or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program
. This would have vast repercussions, but that very fact makes it unlikely because, for both countries, the blowback would make such an attack a last resort. It's unlikely that either country will judge Iran to be so close to actually building a nuclear bomb that a pre-emptive attack is necessary this year (and there are other ways
of slowing the program's progress); and both have an incentive to wait and give the popular uprising the chance to succeed and defuse the problem without military action (see above).A crisis in Europe over the role of the EU
. Resentment over the erosion of national sovereignty is high in several countries and could come to a head. Britain, for example, will hold an election by mid-year. The Conservative party will almost certainly win, but if the UKIP (Britain's nationalist party) does better than expected, the major parties' code of silence on the issue could be broken.A real victory in Afghanistan
. Now that the US is under rational leadership
, and the Pakistani regime is finally starting to clean up the Taliban enclaves on its territory which have made the fight against them in Afghanistan so difficult, conditions there are more favorable than at any time since 2001.